St. Tammany Parish school system promises to conduct a review of its special education services

Settlement follows a complaint that special needs students’ rights were violated during pandemic

By: - July 1, 2021 10:45 am

(Stock photo by Shutterstock)

Javanda May, a Slidell mother, said her 9th grade son struggled transitioning to virtual learning when the COVID-19 pandemic struck. May’s son was supposed to receive accommodations for his attention deficit disorder — including text-to-speech accommodations, small group instruction and mental health services, but “pretty much none of his accommodations from his IEP were implemented,” she said in a phone interview Tuesday.

An IEP — or Individualized Education Program — is a plan that lays out the special education needs and services of a student with a disability. Because her son wasn’t getting the appropriate accommodation for his learning disability, May said his learning loss was significant.

“I feel like my son is being penalized because of (his school’s) lack in teaching and providing him with the services needed to be academically successful,” she said.

May said she and her daughter tried to tutor her son at home to keep him reading at grade level, but it was still difficult for him.

“I sent out constant, daily emails to the principal and the IEP facilitator, but no one responded,” she said.

May reached out to the Loyola University New Orleans College of Law. In March, student practitioner Lisa Soyars and attorneys Hector Linares and Sara Godchaux  submitted a formal complaint to the St. Tammany Parish School System on behalf of the parish’s students with disabilities.

“If that happened to this one child, then it’s probably happened to a lot of other children as well,” Linares said Tuesday.

The complaint alleges that the St. Tammany Parish School System “engaged in a systemic violation of the rights of its more than 7,000 special education students and their parents through a mass failure to provide the academic instruction, modifications, and related services mandated by the students’ (IEP’s) during the pandemic-related school shutdown of spring 2020.”

The complaint also accuses the school system of denying special needs students sufficient additional education services to offset learning loss from the pandemic.

Schools were required to continue providing students with disabilities with special ed services and “access to devices that meet their unique needs regardless of modified operations,” according to the Louisiana Department of Education’s Strong Start 2020 guidelines for reopening. Existing federal law also requires schools to fulfill the IEP requirements for students with disabilities, Linares said.

The St. Tammany Parish School System only offered additional education services to special needs students who had academically regressed since schools shutdown, which Linares said left too many students out.

“That’s why we filed our complaint, because we thought that they had been applying the wrong standard,” Linares said. “Regression was only supposed to be one factor, but it’s actually expected progress” that needs to be measured.

Linares said that documents provided after he made a public record request show that under St. Tammany’s review model, about 1000 students with abilities — or just 1 in 7 — qualified for additional education services.

On Monday, the St. Tammany Parish School System and Loyola Law school reached a settlement that requires the school system to assemble a review team to determine if each of the parish’s 7000 students with disabilities received sufficient services and if not, how much additional academic instruction each student may need.

“We were very pleasantly surprised that St. Tammany was almost immediately willing to come to the table and try to work something out,” Linares said.

The state education department will also serve as “Independent Monitor for the agreement to ensure compliance with the new review procedures.”

Neither the state education department nor the St. Tammany Parish School System responded to multiple messages seeking comment.

“This agreement will impact every single special education student that was in the district” during the 2020 spring semester.

Other Louisiana school districts have also had issues providing necessary services for their special needs students, Linares said, and those school districts may reach similar settlements.

May’s son is taking classes now to make up for learning loss that wasn’t addressed over the school year last year, but May said those additional services still fall short of her son’s education needs because they’re not teaching him grade-level content.

“I feel like he’s constantly being penalized for the doing of adults,” May said.

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JC Canicosa
JC Canicosa

JC Canicosa is an award-winning journalist at The Louisiana Illuminator. Canicosa has previous experience at Investigate-TV and The Loyola Maroon and earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Loyola University New Orleans. At Loyola, he was the senior staff writer at The Maroon and the president of the school's chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. Off the clock, Canicosa enjoys playing basketball, watching movies and dabbling in comedy writing.

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